The problem with Alien: Covenant

I'm gonna lay my cards on the table now: I liked Alien: Covenant. I really liked Prometheus back in 2012. I'm fully aware of how divisive these films have been for fans of the Alien franchise, and I'll debate the quality of these films all day. But Covenant was a mediocre performer at the box office, and it's a good opportunity to explore what went wrong and where the franchise should go next.

*Spoilers for Alien: Covenant follow*

Ridley Scott had, and has, no desire to essentially remake the original Alien. It was a pioneering movie for its time, but if you watched for the first time today you'd probably be underwhelmed by the primitive special effects, predictable (and stupid) deaths, and xenomorph hugs.
This scene was not scary.

I don't think too many people have a problem with the first hour or so of Covenant—i.e., everything that happens before David finds what's left of the crew. The initial setup is done very well, and the climactic end to the first act with the 'neomorph' is intense, grotesque, and unsettling. Say what you will about Ridley Scott's pursuit of narrative grandeur—those scenes, like the surgery pod scene in Prometheus, show us that he's still the undisputed king of alien body horror. The split comes when David is shoved back into the mix, and the film invents a backstory to the creation of the xenomorph that defies decades of fan fiction, strains suspension of disbelief at times, and sets the course for a new canon that is destined to be divisive.

I liked Covenant because I liked all that stuff. To me, the xenomorph being created by a megalomaniacal android who has become indifferent to the suffering of his creators is a much more interesting plot device than what I remember from various fan-fiction comics as a kid—more or less, "the aliens are a species from a planet somewhere." I like David as a character, and what throws people off about Covenant is that it's really about him. He's the central character, even though he acts as the antagonist for the human characters. It's branded as an Alien movie, but it shouldn't have been.
Did Covenant really need another monster in addition to the grotesque 'neomorph'?

For me, any disappointment about Covenant is that Scott was likely forced by 20th Century Fox to make it an Alien film. It didn't need to be, at all. The plot with David unleashing bioweapons against the engineers and the emergence of the neomorphs was more than sufficient to make a fascinating sci-fi film. But 20th Century Fox recognized that Prometheus didn't have xenomorphs in it, and dammit, that's (presumably) what fans of the franchise want. Right? Well...

The problem is that when you make a movie part of the franchise, fans quickly realize that they can't have it all. It's impossible to recapture the lightening in a bottle that made the first two films the modern classics that they are. It'd be foolish to try to essentially remake an Alien/s type movie, because we've already been down that road. It's been done and imitated to death. Let it go.

Ridley Scott never wanted the Prometheus story line to be about the xenomorphs. His whole idea is that there was this other story in the films—the Engineers—that was rife with stories to be told. And y'know what? That was the right thing to do. Future films could have expanded the mythology of the Engineers and teased a bit of crossover with the xenomorph, but it was nervous producers that decided they ought to try to connect the stories directly to the Alien films, rather than letting them exist on their own within the same cinematic universe. I think that was a mistake. Whatever you think of the execution of Prometheus, it had the guts to explore deeper ideas than "scary alien kills people," and exploring the broader fictional universe is a lot more interesting than trying to recreate the magic of the first two films. Covenant is what happens when producers try to find that middle ground that satisfies old fans and creators alike while drawing in a new audience, and the result is that nobody is fully happy with the end product.

Essentially, I think Covenant would have been a better film if it had jettisoned the xenomorph mythology entirely. What if another group of space-faring Engineers had returned to their decimated planet? The neomorphs are scary as fuck, so why couldn't they have remained the central threat? We didn't need the xenomorph. The universe didn't need an origin story. I think it was done well, but I understand why it was so off-putting to others.

The Blomkamp factor

Inevitably, someone mentions the short-lived Alien project that would have been helmed by Neil Blomkamp. It would have jettisoned the relatively unpopular 3rd and 4th Alien films, picking up instead after the events of Aliens and reinventing the canon. 

I think this is a case of be careful what you wish for. Blomkamp himself has a spotty record as a director. District 9 was a huge hit and his visual style is distinct, but his subsequent films—Elysium and Chappie—were much less well received (I really enjoyed Chappie, actually... totally didn't get the hate for the film). There's certainly no guarantee that he could successfully execute a reinvention of the canon, and it's perfectly likely that his film would be just as divisive as Scott's films.

The best thing we can do with Alien as a film franchise is to let it go. The best thing to happen to the franchise since the second film was the video game Alien: Isolation, which is fucking phenomenal, easily the best game of 2014 in my view. But it was also a wholly original experience, in that it was exploring an entirely different medium. The basic concept of the scary xenomorph has been played out in film, which is why Scott needed to explore new ideas in an expanded universe. 

One of my favorite films of the last few years was 10 Cloverfield Lane. I didn't care much for the original film, but my interest was piqued when I learned it wasn't a sequel. Like Prometheus, it was a standalone story within an already-established fictional universe. It was fantastic, and teased much greater possibilities for the Cloverfield universe. This is what the Alien franchise needs. Whether Ridley Scott is the right person to lead that charge is another debate, but studios should be realizing by now that prequels and tie-ins are recipes for disappointment. Even Mad Max: Fury Road wasn't a sequel or tie-in; it was just its own story in the Mad Max universe. That's the way to do it. Let the glory of the original Alien films stand on their own, and move on. 

There's no word yet on a green light for Scott's planned pair of sequels to Covenant, which would eventually tie Prometheus to the events of the 1979 original. That's because Covenant made $120 million less than Prometheus, and studio execs are likely unsure of where to go next and whether Scott should be at the helm. They know the property is lucrative, but pleasing diehard fans of a nearly 40-year-old franchise is a losing battle. So, I say, fuck 'em. Let's see more original stories in the Alien universe, and way fewer xenomorphs. 


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